Will self-driving cars really be the future of driving?

Once confined to science fiction stories and films, self-driving cars are no longer a fantasy. While we are a couple of years away from autonomous vehicles, much of the technology involved is already here. Driver aids are already better than some of us at reverse parking or hill starts. Larger vehicle fleets sport collision sensors and cameras developed by the likes of Brigade Electronics.

So it should be no surprise that self-driving vehicles from manufacturers including Mercedes, BMW and Tesla have racked up hundreds of thousands of miles already. Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk tells Fortune.com: “We’re going to end up with complete autonomy, and I think we will have complete autonomy in approximately two years.”

Audi has already treated tech journalists to a 500-mile ride in its self-driving A7, says Wired: “It’s a prototype, yes, but Audi says this technology will be in production cars within three to five years.”

And Ford has been developing a Fusion-based, self-driving hybrid on a 32-acre test site at the University of Michigan which has been designed to resemble an urban setting.

Tech companies are forging ahead too. Google has been testing its own driverless cars. In fact, one such vehicle was stopped by police for driving too slowly in California.

But how far off are self-driving cars? Most estimates put their mainstream arrival at 2019 to 2020. The real hold-up is coding enough real-world possibilities into a vehicle’s AI for it to react safely in any imaginable situation. Google’s Dmitri Dolgov is the systems engineer responsible for exactly that. He tells the Guardian that “We continuously get better at classifying things and predicting how they will behave.”

“If you have a cyclist coming towards you the wrong way in a cycle lane for example. Or if a car in front is about to make a U-turn as opposed to a normal turn, the system can now recognise slight changes in behaviour. We don’t have to worry about birds, they will avoid us. We do have to worry about the likelihood of people opening doors from parked cars. We can predict when someone is going to run a red light. When cyclists do it. Then there is a long tail of very weird events…”

Elon Musk thinks that once the statistics prove beyond doubt that self-driving cars are viable, they will become regulated. “The data is not yet there to support a fully autonomous vehicle,” he says.

tesla - electric car

Tesla is looking to produce cars theoretically capable of going driverless – the tech will run in ‘shadow mode’ to allow data to be gathered and presented to regulators to prove such cars’ safety. Although a human will be at the controls, Tesla’s cars would record the telemetry as if they were relying on programming to respond to different situations. “The point at which it becomes statistically clear that an autonomous car is safer, I think, regulators will be comfortable with allowing it,” he says.

Costs, regulations and the small matter of confidence: once these are overcome, self-driving cars will arrive en masse.

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